The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently released the latest iteration of the National Occupational Research Agenda for Manufacturing. This agenda is intended to spotlight the industry’s most important occupational safety and health research needs for the next decade. The NORA Manufacturing Council drafted the document, which calls for researchers to investigate the following 6 issues:
1) Acute and chronic occupational illnesses
Employers recorded approximately 2.9 million nonfatal work injuries in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While this figure constitutes the 14th consecutive drop in annual injury totals, there is still considerable work to be done – especially where acute and chronic work-related conditions are concerned. The document calls for research into four key acute and chronic occupational hazards in the manufacturing space:
- Traumatic injuries and fatalities.
- Chronic, occupation-related diseases.
- Musculoskeletal disorders.
- Hearing loss.
In addition to finding ways to protect vital organs such as the lungs, NIOSH researchers plan to address musculoskeletal issues, which account for one-third of all work-related injuries, according to OSHA. NORA includes several key themes that researchers focusing on musculoskeletal disorders should address over 2018, including the correlation between plant mechanization and the development of MSDs, the impact of ergonomic tools and the effectiveness of existing and future risk assessment tools.
NORA also establishes hearing loss as another key concern for manufacturing workplace researchers. An estimated 22 million employees are exposed to harmful levels of sound in their respective work environments every year, OSHA found. For a disturbingly large number, this prolonged exposure leads to partial or complete hearing loss. The most recent research agenda from NIOSH compels researchers to discover new methods for determining risk and mitigating the health consequences that normally come along with working in an overly noisy manufacturing space.
2) Exposure, hazard and illness surveillance
The CDC, OSHA and other organizations track worker illnesses and fatalities. However, these oversight bodies can never be sure that they have collected accurate injury data due to the fact that the rely on self-reporting programs. With this new OSHA recordkeeping law, which requires firms with 250 or more employees and smaller companies in high-risk industries to submit electronic injury data, hazard surveillance is likely to improve. However, NIOSH believes there is more work to do in this area.
NORA advises researchers to look into new methods for tracking workplace hazards and risk on a worker-by-worker level. For example, NORA mentions the potential solution of including occupational risk factors within electronic health records so that physicians can help employees protect themselves from on-the-job dangers. Additionally, the document calls for the development of a standardized system for calculating risk at the workplace.
3) Technology-related occupational risk
Industry 4.0 continues to mature. Manufacturers worldwide are expected to spend almost $350 billion on digital products and services in 2018 as they pursue innovative workflows based on the latest technology, according to the researchers at the International Data Corporation. It is no wonder that so many firms are racing to adopt transformative technologies, for innovations such as industrial automation and machine learning hold immense potential for both shop floor leaders and back office managers. However, putting into place such software and hardware creates risk.
The ever expanding pool of connected equipment and systems creates new backdoors through which cybercriminals can invade company servers and steal key information, including customer and employee personal details and trade secrets. With this in mind, NIOSH, via NORA, asked researchers to tackle the various hazards that come along with mass operational digitization.
4) Nontraditional worker protections
Conventional working arrangements – i.e., exclusive full-time employment agreements – are quickly falling out of fashion due to the ascendance of the gig economy. Here, employees function as permanent contractors, bouncing between various “freelance” positions in an effort to cultivate varied revenue streams and maintain total control over their calendars. Today, more than 57 million Americans participate in the gig economy and contribute around $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy annually, according to research from the Freelancers Union and Upwork.
However, this flexibility comes with some downsides. Because contractors make their own hours and source work outside of traditional hiring situations, they do not have access to some of the perks that come along with full-time employment, including health care. Additionally, freelancing is demanding both mentally and physically, leaving many with serious work-related injuries. Contract and temporary workers within the manufacturing space are especially vulnerable to such injuries.
With the freelance community growing at an accelerated rate, NIOSH advised researchers and others in the manufacturing industry to use environmental health and safety models that work in firms where perhaps hundreds or thousands of contractors come to clock in. NORA also includes guidance on workplace training platforms for freelancers, valuable resources that some businesses do not extend to the itinerant staff.
5) Education and training
Even as the manufacturing industry expands, serious sector-wide complications develop in the background, with the foremost issue being an ever-growing skills gap. By 2025, there will be an estimated 3.5 million unfilled job openings in the manufacturing arena, according to the researchers at the Manufacturing Institute. With this catastrophic development on the horizon, NIOSH is pushing experts via NORA to create new education and training initiatives to address the skills shortage.
The document itself mentions the Safe, Skilled, Ready Workforce Program, an initiative NIOSH launched in 2016. NORA calls for the creation of similar programs, along with occupational health and safety efforts aimed at keeping workers injury-free.
6) Actionable research
The final objective included in NORA compels researchers to develop the best practices for preventing workplace injuries and illnesses in manufacturing by collecting large data sets, arguing that sustainable change is only possible through programs based on actionable insights.
Together, these objectives establish a strong starting point for the public and private innovators interested in catalyzing further growth in the manufacturing space by protecting and growing its most prized asset: people.